Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Speak softly and carry a big staff
As a long-time visitor and resident of the Middle East, I often feel a twinge of sympathy for visitors who might not be as inured as I have become to the rough-and-tumble of a region where religious, political and cultural sensitivites permeate every aspect of daily life, where arguments can blow up from the seemingly trivial and where, confusingly, remarkable levels of co-habitation and co-existence still show up against this explosive backdrop.
Pope Benedict, with his army of advisers and counsellors, is better prepared than many visitors for what the region might hold in store during his week here. But he must be acutely aware of the delicate nature of his trip – and that any gesture, word or act could become a major international issue
The atmosphere in the region in the build-up to the visit has been typical of this part of the world – intense security preparations, high expectations, huge media coverage of a VIP visitor who puts the region back at the centre of world attention where everyone here thinks it belongs, some folk rolling out the welcome mat, other folk saying ‘Go back to Rome’, and, of course, spin doctors from all sides filling up my e-mail inbox with explanations of how the Pope’s visit categorically backs up what they’ve been saying all along.
Stepping in to this cauldron for anyone can be daunting – when you’re the leader of the world’s largest religious denomination it’s a tightrope act of, dare I say it, biblical proportions.
Muslim anger over the Pope’s controversial Regensburg lecture has already tinged his visit to Jordan – but he handled it with no major incidents and his speeches in Amman hit many of the right notes.
That anger, though, is still felt by many in the large Muslim population in Israel and the Palestinian territories, so there will be a lot of focus on the pope’s visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City – a site revered by Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven to visit the prophets and meet Allah – and on his visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, and to the Arab majority town of Nazareth in northern Israel.
Jewish anger , over the Pope’s reinstatement in to the clergy of a Holocaust-denying priest and plans to make Pope Pius XII a saint despite the controversy swirling over what Pius did or did not do during the Second World War to save Jews from extermination, will ensure intense interest and analysis of his visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, and his meetings with Israeli religious and political leaders.
Even within the Christian community the Pope will surely come to learn that things are not all peace and love in the Holy Land.
If you need proof – look at the video below of different Christian sects sparring over their rights to use different parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which the pope will visit at the end of his tour.
The pope does, indeed, speak softly – lets hope that will be enough to make his trip a success.
Photo Credit: Pope Benedict during a welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv May 11 2009 REUTERS/Tony Gentile